‘MISS JULIE’ TAKES US DOWN—AND BACK—TO STRINDBERG’S CLASSIC MISOGYNYBy Greggory Moore
Miss Julie, the somewhat disreputable daughter of a count, decides that just dancing with servant Jean upstairs at her father’s Midsummer’s Eve ball is not enough, and so she follows him both down the stairs and down the social ladder. What ensues is a quasi-expressionistic meditation on the various binary oppositions—particularly, man/woman, high/low, and appearance/reality.
Does this make for compelling theatre? It largely depends on how you feel about the mind doing the meditating. In this case it’s August Strindberg (1849-1912), the Swedish writer who the University Players’ press release labels as both a “classic dramatist” and a “misogynist”—each of which seems fair in this case—so the result is, at least, interesting.
The University Players’ production of Miss Julie is my first bite of Strindberg, and I’m not sure about the aftertaste. To my modern ear, Strindberg (at least via this adaptation by Craig Lucas; I’m not sure what “adaptation” means here) seems a bit like an amorally sententious David Mamet of the mid-19th century.[i] He’s simultaneously stodgy and gritty, and he takes us on a journey based more in dialog than on plot. So it’s not difficult to see why he’s kind of a big deal, historically.
But there’s something incongruous about Miss Julie. As much as some of Strindberg’s technique may have been ahead of his time, his time has passed, and I can’t help wondering if whatever genius he may have evinced (if genius is what it is/was) lacks timelessness. Maybe Miss Julie is only an interesting relic, important to the development of the art but now transcended both philosophically and practically (as we might say about the D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation)?
Whatever the case, the University Players have decided to take it on, and it’s a take worth considering. With a standard type of expressionistic set I like to call “stairs and chairs” (functional enough here but also unintentionally echoing the incongruity of the script), director Trevor Biship seems to know where his play’s bread is buttered and has paid little mind to realism (thus do the actors pantomime almost every would-be prop, and Jean’s servant’s quarters has four separate exits), instead letting the characters’ psychological moves dictate the blocking. The result is fittingly incongruous but not ineffective.
Meanwhile, the lighting in this show is very effective. Without implementing a wide range of cues, Biship and company manage to evoke combinations of physical and mental space that both ring true and look good.
This is a three-character play grounded in dialog, which means the actors are asked to carry a lot of weight. As Jean, Kyle Jones has some nice moments (especially at play’s end), but to use the Spinal Tap scale (“These go to 11″), the vast majority of his performance is steadily at 8—whereas Strindberg has clearly written the part to have a much wider range of dynamics. Meghan Dillon’s Julie is closer to the right variation, but when in doubt she, too, goes for over-the-top. It is Avery Henderson as Jean’s fiancée, Kristine (the play’s smallest role), who nails it, communicating as much with her facial expressions, pauses, and quiet moments as when she’s enraged.
Considering that CSULB is the dominant force in Long Beach theatre—what with its direct connections to Cal Rep, the Garage Theatre, and Alive Theatre—I’m a bit embarrassed to say that this is the first time I’ve made it out to see a University Players production. But it won’t be the last.
An afterword: I’m happy to report that the performance I attended—on a Wednesday night— was basically sold out. It seemed that the audience was almost exclusively students. While I’d love to see more people from the community at large come out, it’s heartening to see the University Players being so well-supported.
But a word of warning: the CSULB Website is pretty worthless in telling you how to find the Players Theatre; campus maps aren’t helpful; and ask a student you encounter on campus and you may end up at the Carpenter Center. This is partly why I completed missed the Tuesday-night show I was originally scheduled to attend—even though I was attending with an alumnus. We just couldn’t find the damn thing. The theatre is not hard to locate if you get proper directions (as I hope I’ve provided below)—just don’t plan on getting them online.
MISS JULIE UNIVERSITY PLAYERS @ CSULB PLAYERS THEATRE (SOUTH CAMPUS; ENTER WEST CAMPUS DRIVE FROM 7TH ST, THEN FOLLOW THE SIGNS TO THEATRE PARKING) • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.985.5526 WWW.CSULB.ED/DEPTS/THEATRE • TUES-SAT 8PM + SAT-SUN 2PM • $12-$15 (PARKING $5) • THROUGH OCT 24
[i] If you know Strindberg, drop me a line and let me know how that description sounds to you.